After playing fast and loose with the conventions of zombie thrillers in Shaun of the Dead, and then transporting the tropes of supercop action flicks to a quiet English hamlet in Hot Fuzz, director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have teamed up again to tweak apocalyptic tales of extraterrestrial invasions in The World’s End, the grand finale of what this creative triumvirate describes as their “Cornetto Trilogy.”
But be forewarned: There’s more to their new movie than what’s being hyped in the wild and wacky trailers and TV spots. Indeed, for the first half-hour, World’s End comes off as a melancholy comedy about not-so-quiet desperation.
Having reached the dawn of middle age without ever quite growing up, Gary King (Pegg) is eager to return to his glory days as self-appointed ringleader for “the five musketeers,” a group of friends in the suburban U.K. town of Newton Haven. Trouble is, his four erstwhile buddies — now relatively secure and passably happy with jobs, spouses and other attributes of adulthood after moving far away from Newton Haven — don’t recall those long-ago school days as glorious in any way.
And they’re far short of enthused when Gary invites them to return to their hometown and take another crack at the epic pub crawl that they began, yet failed to complete, one fateful night decades ago.
But Gary is unrelenting in his any-means-necessary campaign to convince his former schoolmates — even Andy (Frost), the most reluctant of the lot — to join him on a quest to complete “The Golden Mile” by sampling a pint or two of beer at each of 12 pubs scattered about Newton Haven.
Right from the start, however, Gary’s party-hearty exuberance is tempered by wet-blanket realities. For openers, Andy doesn’t drink pints of anything but water these days. And the other “musketeers” are only slightly more indulgent when it comes to sharing Gary’s frantic enthusiasm.
But here’s the real drag: The old pubs don’t look quite the same, and the people who run them seem underwhelmed by Gary’s return. And it doesn’t help matters much that, the drunker Gary gets, the more his four friends remember why they haven’t kept up with the guy. After 30 minutes or so, the reunion appears ready to degenerate into barely polite tedium or, worse, angry recrimination.
It’s only then that Gary realizes that most of the folks in Newton Haven have been replaced by extraterrestrial invaders. And they don’t approve of his misbehavior, either.
Pegg, of course, is no stranger to acting opposite alien life forms. After all, he played Scotty in the last two Star Trek movies, co-wrote (with Nick Frost) and co-starred in the 2011 sci-fi comedy Paul, and even guest-starred in a classic episode of Dr. Who.
But much like director Edgar Wright (with whom he scripted The World’s End) and frequent collaborator Frost, he would have perfectly happy had audiences not known ahead of time that extraterrestrials would figure into the mix of their latest movie.
But when the three mates visited Austin last month on a promotional tour, they readily agreed that, in this era of hard-sell advertising and spoiler-stuffed online posts, it’s hard, and maybe even self-defeating, to keep anything from potential ticket buyers.
CultureMap: In a perfect world, would you prefer that audiences not know anything about what happens after the half-hour mark in The World’s End? Or have you always known there’d be no way to keep that a secret?
Edgar Wright: I think you knew that going in. Even while you’re writing the script, you know that’s going to be out there. In the same way, like, you couldn’t trailer Shaun of the Dead without showing the zombies. It’s impossible.
Nobody went in to see Shaun of the Dead cold. Mind you, it would be an amazing experience if you did, if you didn’t know there’d be zombies in it at all. But then nobody would go and see it. Because there’s no way of trailering something like that without giving a hint of what’s to come.
So it’s a necessary evil. Also, I think there are lots of surprises still in [The World’s End]. Lots of things that we took off the table from the trailer-makers, where we said, “Don’t show this. Don’t show that. Don’t show this.” Because the thing is, the film isn’t just about its trailer moments. Beyond the sci-fi and the action, it’s actually about the characters.
When people get bummed out about summer releases and complain, “All the good bits were in the trailer,” that’s usually because the film has nothing else going on. So I would hope that there’s more to chew on in the movie than what you see in the trailer.
Nick Frost: We always said about Paul as well that the best way to see that was not knowing there was an alien in it.
Simon Pegg: But that was impossible.
Frost: In the end, you have to kind of weigh up what you’re willing to exchange, and what you’re willing to fight for.
Pegg: And you have to think about the big picture. There will be people who actively avoid spoilers and trailers and stuff. And more power to them for being so trusting in terms of coming to see the film on the grounds of what we’ve done before. We know some people have been doggedly careful to avoid everything, and have gone in and been utterly blown away by what happens. But we have to sell this film on a large scale. And, unfortunately, you have to give some of it away to get something back.
CM: Were you ever tempted to go down a different path? Or, more precisely, were you ever tempted to keep going down the same path you travel for the first half-hour?
Pegg: But we do. That’s the thing. Despite the fact that we take that turn, the film does stay on the same path. It stays about the pub crawl. It’s just that we add a layer of fantastic exacerbation. Which has always kind of been our thing.
Wright: Because we wanted to make these films like a loose sort of trilogy. In a way, our use of genre — especially in this one — is our way of amplifying a feeling that we have. So the movie is basically about the bittersweet feeling of going back home, and how you find yourself alienated from your hometown. And that’s literally what happens.
The key thing that’s in the film at the half-hour mark — without giving too much away — is that when our hero discovers what’s going on, he’s happy about the revelation. He’s actually smiling about it. Because it’s easier for him to bear the idea of this sort of quiet invasion than it is to face A) I’m old, and B) my hometown is not as great as I thought it was.
So in a way, when we first came up with the story idea, the genre element was always a key to it. That’s been true of all three of these films. You could make a straight comedy-drama, and you would reach a different audience — a much smaller audience.
What’s nice about doing these movies is that people who wouldn’t go and see a comedy-drama in a million years will actually be forced to think about their relationships and their past, and the people they know, and the emotions that they have that they haven’t thought about for a while.
Pegg: And also, this invasion — this sort of galactic event — is not enough to deter Gary from his determination to finish 12 pints of beer. And that says something about the motivations of addicted people: They put that ahead of everything. It becomes the most important thing for them. Even in the face of an alien invasion.
Gary uses it to keep his friends with him. Because by the time they’ve had a few drinks, and they fall into that kind of hierarchy they had back in school; they don’t know any better than to follow Gary into certain oblivion. Which, if you remember, is what they say at the start, at the train station.
Wright: I remember talking with Simon a long, long time ago about Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel. It’s a great idea: There’s this party that you can never leave. Whatever’s happening, you cannot get out of this party.
So I came up with the notion that Gary sort of holds his friends hostage, basically, and says: We are going on this crawl, by hook or by crook. And we always liked the whole idea of the middle bit feeling like a French Occupation thriller. They have to start doing their mission: pretending to have a good time. They even say that: We’re pretending to have a good time.
What we really tried to do here is create these Trojan horses, so that it’s a sci-fi action-comedy — but the relationship stuff is really what this movie is all about. And that’s something you can’t spoil in the trailers. We like the idea of sort of smuggling in deeper themes into something that’s big and silly and action packed.
Prior to opening Friday at theaters and drive-ins everywhere, The World’s End will be screened Thursday as part of a triple feature with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in Austin and other areas throughout civilized world. You can find a complete list of theaters hosting the “Cornetto Trilogy”marathon here.